“Cost Analyzing Every Slot Machine” – An Appreciation of SHOWGIRLS
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Stardust proudly presents Ms. Cristal Connors.” Rising from the smokey mouth of a faux volcano that just erupted with a violent burst of fire, a nearly naked woman – Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) – appears on stage like Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus. It’s extravagant and erotic… it’s Las Vegas! Vegas, as an idea greater than its reality, is a place where anyone can make a buck or get fucked, and what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Paul Verhoeven‘s Showgirls (1995) is a film with a reputation befitting of a place like Vegas, as an NC-17 film about strippers and showgirls is quite a gamble. Why it wasn’t received well though upon initial release and remains a widely maligned film is beyond me. Sure, I suppose I have my guesses as to why this film doesn’t usually get treated with respect, and those reasons are generally one and the same with why I believe Showgirls is a great film that has amassed a cult following. Nothing about Showgirls is particularly subtle, though its greatness might be the only thing that has gone undetected, and that’s part of why it was a perfect object for cult followings from the beginning (regardless of its box office earnings).
One of the most important characteristics that define a cult film for Umberto Eco, the author of the essay “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage,” is that spectators of a film “must be able to break, dislocate, [and] unhinge it so that one can only remember parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole” (Eco 463). From the beginning, Showgirls is a film in fragments that is accentuated by moments of controlled sensationalism.
Introduced wearing a fringed black leather jacket with ripped up blue jeans, Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) extends her arm with her thumb out. Destination? Vegas. Instantly, she’s picked up by a guy with a mullet who’s a little too flirty for Nomi’s taste, so she threatens him with a switchblade. This is our first real indicator that Showgirls is a high-octane experience, but it’s only minutes away from transforming into something else when she arrives in Vegas and is robbed of her suitcase by the guy she hitched a ride from. Running across a busy street, Nomi begins hitting a car in the parking lot that isn’t hers as the owner, Molly (Gina Ravera), approaches. Suddenly, Nomi vomits for seemingly no reason after resisting Molly’s attempts to prevent her from damaging her car, and then Molly has to save her from running back into oncoming traffic. Presumably since Molly’s a nice girl, she takes Nomi out to get some French fries, and it’s another chaotic scene with Nomi stabbing her straw into the lid of her large soda and pouring copious amounts of ketchup over her fries. Upon flipping the ketchup bottle back right-side up on the table, ketchup even ejaculates from the bottle. However, it’s in that moment of ejaculating condiments that Showgirls grounds its audience by maintaining that the film won’t be letting up, but (more importantly) Molly also offers Nomi a place in her home – a sense of normalcy within this world can be created.
All of the previously mentioned scenes occur within the first eight minutes of the film and are distinct moments indicative of a film that is “unhinged.” If anyone can make it through the first eight minutes of Showgirls and forgive it for being so fractured, they should find that the rest of the film’s riches and excesses are presented in a very rewarding fashion. Structurally, isolated moments continue to stand out from the whole of the film, but in service of a narrative that aims beyond the premises of hitchhiking and aspirations of dancing which compel Nomi to move forward. With that said, the vast majority of the film is centered around the push-pull relationship between Nomi and her goals – can she stay true to herself?
Related to Showgirls’ “unhinged” quality is its own intertextuality – that, like Casablanca (1943), the film “is a cult movie because it is not one movie. It is ‘movies'” (Eco 469). Connected to its Las Vegas setting, there’s a whole legacy of films from which characters and images are coming from. Two films in particular could be working within this milieu as a point of reference, namely the Cyd Charisse vehicle Meet Me In Las Vegas (1956), directed by Roy Rowland, and the George Sidney film Viva Las Vegas (1964) starring Elvis and Ann-Margret. Notably, Meet Me In Las Vegas is – in my opinion – not particularly good, but it’s a film set in Vegas about a professional dancer… a ballerina, specifically. She gets involved with a gambling gentleman who enjoys the beautiful showgirls that the casinos have to offer. Though there are musical numbers with singing, the emphasis on Cyd Charisse’s dance scenes and choreography that fills the frame in a Las Vegas setting is particularly integral to the Showgirls experience.
While Meet Me In Las Vegas is still quite ordinary on an aesthetic level, Viva Las Vegas is a film full of energy and “unhinged” moments. The inventiveness of Sidney’s camera as it exploits Ann-Margret’s body when she’s first introduced in the garage isn’t too distant from what Verhoeven would be doing thirty-one years later. The narrative context is different, but the acceptance of artifice as an aesthetic in itself is at the very core of Viva Las Vegas and can be seen as the source of Showgirls‘ success as a work of Verhoeven’s cinematic prowess.
Narratively speaking, much of Showgirls‘ narrative can be connected to the audition and rehearsal scenes in Lloyd Bacon‘s 42nd Street (1933). In 42nd Street, Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), the director of the production within the film, has all the dance-hopefuls line up and show off their legs. The line of “come on girls, lift your dresses up!” could easily be replaced with “okay, show me your tits. I’ve got a topless show for Christ’s sake, show me your tits!” as said by Tony Moss (Alan Richins), the director of Goddess in Showgirls. Near the conclusion of 42nd Street, the main actress has abandoned the production, so the ordinary dancing girl who had been doing her best at every rehearsal is given a chance to lead the show, and the same thing happens when Cristal Connors falls down the stairs and needs to be replaced. “The show must go on!”
Going further down the rabbit hole of cinematic connections, the moment that Cristal Connors first locks eyes with Nomi as Cristal removes her makeup in the mirror, Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s All About Eve (1950) is being evoked as an identical scenario occurs in that film. Cristal Connors is the Bette Davis figure – “the aging star” archetype – while Nomi is the up-and-coming threat who will rise from nothing to great heights to take her place.
Though potential or actual references and allusions to other films are palpable, there’s another layer to Showgirls‘ quality as a myriad of “movies” that allows for it be so readily read as a cult film: “intertextual frames” (Eco 464). “Moreover,” writes Eco, “we are interested in finding those frames that not only are recognizable by the audience as belonging to a sort of ancestral intertextual tradition but that also display a particular fascination” (Eco 464). Nomi, for example, is “the woman without a past.” While stripping at the club, she goes by “Heather,” while in normal life and at the Stardust, she’s “Nomi Malone,” but her true identity (as revealed near the end of the film) is “Polly Ann Costello” – she can be anyone, and she even claims to be from “different places.” It’s fitting though that Nomi, who has multiple identities, can be defined by multiple “frames.” On top of being “the woman without a past,” she’s also the “saintly harlot,” and this is indicated as a reoccurring theme for Nomi. Her status as a “whore” is constantly refuted (or at least resisted) by Nomi, and her expressions of platonic love for Molly help to make Nomi’s case believable. She’s a working girl, but that doesn’t define who she really is.
In addition to characters within the film, Showgirls, as a whole, takes on different “frames” as well. Beginning with the hitchhiking scene, it’s a “road movie.” Eventually, it becomes a “surrogate family” movie on a variety of levels: Molly and Nomi, Nomi and the strippers at her club, and Nomi with the Stardust showgirls and employees. By the end of the film, it takes a dramatic turn and becomes a “rape/revenge” film, which is likely problematic for the same viewers who fail to acclimate after the first eight minutes of Showgirls. Broadly, the whole film is a “rags to riches” tale, and there are few archetypal stories that are more accessible than that.
Eco’s essay also outlines some additional key tenets that a work must have to be a true “cult object.” The first of which is that the film “must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters” and recreate scenarios and scenes (Eco 462). Any quality that a fan can take from a given film and apply to their own life is the basis of cult-like behavior around a film.
Beyond dialogue, Showgirls is in a unique position in regard to the potential for imitation, as it is a film that can be visually quoted or physically imitated in addition to being the product of a highly quotable screenplay. That is not to say that there are fans of this film out there licking stripper poles (though I won’t rule it out, as that would be their own prerogative), but the wardrobe and makeup – as well as the gestural quality of performances – solicit easy calls for mimicry. Even characters within the film are involved with the act of imitating others, which is observable in the previously mentioned scene in which Cristal Connors is fully introduced coming out of the volcano on stage. Standing in the audience of the Stardust, Nomi begins copying the dance choreography in a very basic way: she’s stripping it down to hand gestures that will be recognizable when she eventually becomes the lead in the production of Goddess. With her hands crossing in front of her face, this particular choreographed hand motion looks incredible, and it’s difficult as a spectator to resist wanting to attempt the movement after (or even during) the film.
Looking at Nomi’s hands in this sequence of micro-choreography, her nails are on full display within a natural context. Nail polish becomes a part of the film’s visual and aural lexicon, as by this point she has already drawn attention to her colorful approach to her nails. Just to connect Showgirls to another film, but up until Showgirls, had fingernails ever been as catty since the “jungle red” nail polish from George Cukor‘s adaptation of The Women (1939)? “I’ve had two years to grow claws, Mother,” says Norma Shearer in The Women as she turns toward the camera to continue, exclaiming, “Jungle red!” Nomi’s fingernails will attract the ire of Cristal as she begins to feel that her position of power is being infringed upon by Nomi. Only one scene earlier, Nomi and Cristal were arguing, but now they’re holding hands and marveling at each other’s nails. “Maybe I’ll help you with yours sometime,” suggests Nomi. Only after responding, “Isn’t that nice of you, darlin’?” does Cristal pull out her own verbal claws. “On second thought, I’m not sure I want you to do mine. I’m getting a little too old for that whorey look,” Cristal says with a devilish grin.
Showgirls, penned by Joe Eszterhas, is more than aware of its own quotability, as hinted at as James Smith (Glenn Plummer) quips, “Where do you get this stuff? Off of t-shirts?” in response to Nomi telling him that “life sucks.” Lines like Tony’s observation of “I’m erect. Why aren’t you erect?” and “cost analyzing every slot machine” being uttered as Zack Carey’s (Kyle MacLachlan) job description are hilarious and compelling. Almost more staying than one-liners, throughout the film, characters have catchphrases and go-to words that are consistently delivered with an inspired amount of confidence. Ending a sentence with the word “darlin’,” dripping in a Southern drawl, could be one of the easiest ways to communicate a facet of this film’s quotability or one’s own love for the film. Further, owning the frequently delivered line of “it doesn’t suck” can serve as an in-joke for those who would prefer to defend Showgirls using the film’s own vernacular.
Perhaps it is that my taste filters are broken, but I genuinely believe that Showgirls is not just a fun film, but that it is a great film – a masterpiece, even. Having seen it for the first time only a few months ago, perhaps my distance from the original release contributed to me being able to love it instantly, but I probably would have embraced it regardless. Like a Vincente Minnelli melodrama, the vibrant manner in which action occurs on screen and the way the plot develops to compliment its shamelessly expressive side appeals to what I enjoy in Hollywood films from both the past and the present.
Still, my own interest in films that have a prurient slant cannot be denied as a factor in my initial appreciation of the film. Films in which sex is dealt with as the conflict or is of a substantial weight on the film are of great interest to me. Whether it’s Nagisa Oshima‘s In The Realm of The Senses (1976), with unsimulated sex scenes; or a film like Bruno Dumont‘s Twentynine Palms (2003), which has some of the most over-the-top gestural performances during sex; when sex is depicted in a manner that is confronting an audience, I believe it’s at its strongest. In that regard, Showgirls is a film with more skin than sex, but it does have one true consensual sex scene that can be separated from the entire film.
Like the ejaculating ketchup bottle seen in the first eight minutes of the film, the sex scene between Nomi and Zack Carey, the entertainment director of the Stardust, is a burst of cinematic flourishes that could only make sense in the context of Showgirls. Upon emptying a bottle of champagne over Nomi’s head while they wade in the pool at Zack’s mansion, Nomi probably tastes like Cristal’s namesake, champagne – a significant detail, since Cristal is Zack’s lover. In fact, in a previous scene, Cristal sprinkled champagne in Nomi’s face while saying, “This isn’t champagne, this is holy water!” Once the champagne is administered, the swimming pool sex begins. Underwater fellating follows immediately after Zack tastes the champagne on Nomi’s chest, and as she playfully swims away and hides under a poolside fountain, horror imagery is used as Zack approaches her. With his arms extended before him like a zombie, he makes his way through the waterfall created by the fountain and then lures her out from under the waterfall with his tender kisses. This must be what he meant by “cost analyzing every slot machine.” Once there’s penetration, a transcendental quality quickly consumes the action of the scene, as that which could not be foreseen occurs. With each thrust, Nomi moves to the rhythm as waves begin crashing along the edge of the pool. Suddenly, she lets go of Zack and throws herself back onto the water and begins violently shaking – it’s like she’s no longer in control of her body. As if Zack is performing a sexual exorcism against her, Nomi thrashes about on the surface of the water until they both finally climax. That a sex scene like this can exist is one thing (calling to mind William Friedkin‘s The Exorcist (1973) and all), but that it happens within the context of a film that can support it is another.
Relegated to cult film status, generally in a derogatory sense, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls is a film that could’ve been a hit, and it is a substantial cinematic work far greater than its reputation. A pile of Razzie Awards, a 4.6/10 on IMDb, a Flickchart global ranking of 7,333, and gleaning that it’s primarily known in a negative light by almost everyone who hasn’t seen it makes my sincere enjoyment of the film a badge of honor. A feeling that I am part of a minority of viewers who appreciate it makes it even subversive to be a member of the cult of Showgirls, which is a titillating thought. For those of us who have seen it and love it, we know the truth: “it doesn’t suck.”
Eco, Umberto. “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage.” The Cult Film Reader. Ed. Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik. Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open UP/McGraw-Hill Education, 2008. 460-70.